Paintbrush in Hand, a Russian Muralist Wages His Own War
An 84-year-old artist was standing in front of one of the many murals he has painted in his provincial hometown one recent day when a group of young women passed by. They had traveled some 60 miles from Moscow just to see his latest work, and they tittered at the encounter.
“This is so cool,” said one. “You are the main attraction of town.”
The artist, Vladimir A. Ovchinnikov, has long covered the walls of the town with pastoral scenes, poets and portraits of daily life, in the process earning himself a reputation as the “Banksy of Borovsk.” But it is his political art that is now attracting attention. At a time when dissent is being crushed across Russia, Mr. Ovchinnikov has been painting murals protesting the invasion of Ukraine.
It is a comparison he does not appreciate. Unlike the mysterious British-based street artist, Mr. Ovchinnikov works for all to see. And where a politically charged new Banksy offering may be cause for sensation, Mr. Ovchinnikov’s murals are not always welcomed — at least, not by the authorities.
“I draw doves, they paint over them,” he said.
Mr. Ovchinnikov is a rare dissident in Russia, where public criticism of the war can land people in jail or exile. He said his age and his family history offered a modicum of protection, even though he has been fined, questioned by the authorities and pelted with snowballs.
“I am different from the majority of people: I’m almost 85 years old, and I’ve got nothing to lose,” he said. “If you are of working age, you can lose your job, and they will pick you up faster. I, an old man, seem to be treated differently.”
He also said his own history — he did not meet his father until age 11 because his father had spent 10 years in a gulag — drove him to denounce violence and war. Upon his retirement as an engineer in Moscow, he settled in his father’s house in Borovsk. His father had chosen the town because as a former political prisoner, he was forced to live at least 60 miles away from the capital.
For his service as the town’s public conscience, Mr. Ovchinnikov has repeatedly clashed with local officials. Amid the domestic crackdown that has accompanied the war, he has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. Many of Mr. Ovchinnikov’s murals are covered over within days or weeks.
Across from the town’s voenkomat, or military commissariat, the cream-colored walls on Lenin Street are smeared haphazardly with gobs of white paint. Underneath, Mr. Ovchinnikov said, is his painting of a girl wearing the blue and yellow of Ukraine as three missiles fly overhead. Underneath, in large, bold letters: “Stop this!!!”
The State of the War
- Aid for Ukraine: In the latest attempt to buoy Ukraine through a brutal winter, international leaders have announced around 1 billion euros to repair the country’s infrastructure.
- Avoiding Questions: President Vladimir V. Putin will not hold his annual December news conference. The move comes as Russia’s economy falters and follows a series of military setbacks in Ukraine.
- Splintered Loyalties: The town of Sviatohirsk, in Ukraine’s east, is divided by where people’s allegiances lie: with Moscow or Kyiv.
- Brittney Griner’s Release: By detaining the athlete, the Kremlin weaponized pain and got the United States to turn over a convicted arms dealer. Can the same tactic work in the war?
After painting over the graffiti, the authorities turned their attention to Mr. Ovchinnikov, fining him 35,000 rubles, about $560, and accusing him of “discrediting the Russian armed forces.”
“A fine for the fact that I want peace,” Mr. Ovchinnikov said. “I’m discrediting our military. How disgraceful.”
His supporters sent donations to help him cover the fine.
Nearby, in the town’s small central park, Mr. Ovchinnikov pointed to a statue of Lenin. It is not unlike those standing in practically every Russian town to this day. “That’s our leader,” he said sarcastically. The statue, he noted with a wry smile, is pointing straight at the voenkomat.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fomented separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Ovchinnikov drew a Ukrainian flag on the statue’s pedestal. “I didn’t have time to write ‘Glory to Ukraine,’” he said. “They came and picked me up right away.”
Russia under Vladimir V. Putin has sought to airbrush its history.
It prefers, for example, to portray Joseph Stalin as the leader who led the Soviet Union to victory in World War II, and minimize the scale of the crimes the state under his rule committed against its own people. Memorial, a human rights organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its work chronicling political repression, has been dismantled.
In Borovsk, where he moved after retiring from his career as an engineer, Mr. Ovchinnikov is fighting a lonely battle to keep the memory alive.
Tucked behind Lenin in the park is a vandalized black stone, a monument to the those who were repressed during the Stalin era. Mr. Ovchinnikov had campaigned for it — but he is the one who vandalized it. He had wanted the memorial to include the names of all those from Borovsk who had been repressed.
“I wrote ‘trampled and forgotten,’ and higher on the rock, ‘return their names,’” he said, referring to the idea that he was restoring dignity to the victims, who are currently a nameless and uncounted mass.
That, too, was covered up with paint.
Nearby, at the center of the park, stands a memorial to those who defended the Soviet Union during World War II. On its large back wall in 2019, Mr. Ovchinnikov erected his own memorial, one dedicated to the repressed. He painted a huge banner with portraits of people who had been shot. “Executed Future,” he called it.
“I wrote down the names of only those shot,” he said. “There are 186 of them. But those who met their end in the camps — I should have added them.”
As he walked to the front of the memorial, he paused to examine the list of names of the soldiers who died during the war.
“For every 100 people who died on the battlefields, 170 were shot by our authorities,” Mr. Ovchinnikov said. “Yes, they have something to hide. But I think that the only reason they don’t want people to know about the scale is that they don’t want people to know what our government is capable of doing.”
Farther down the street, he took a piece of charcoal from his pocket and traced four numbers faintly visible under a fresh coat of paint: 1937, the year that Stalin’s repression peaked. “The fact we’re trying to forget our tragedy, our repression, is one of the reasons for what is happening in Ukraine now,” he said.
Many people feel uncomfortable when confronted with the painful history — and present — and do not welcome Mr. Ovchinnikov’s art.
In the town’s central market, an older man pulling a cart stopped in front of a mural of his that was commissioned by the local butcher. It showed an artist holding a large goblet in front of a still life with meat.
“If I had my wall defaced like this, I would paint over it,” the man told Mr. Ovchinnikov gruffly.
Other residents who appreciate his apolitical art but back the war are rankled by his support for Ukraine.
“It was not right to draw that,” said Aleksei, 32, pointing to a mural with sunflowers and another one next to it called “Nostalgia,” which featured a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman holding hands. “Nostalgia” had been vandalized: The Ukrainian woman’s eyes had been gouged out.
“Ukraine is not on our side but against us, and we don’t need Ukraine to exist,” said Aleksei, who declined to give his surname. “They started the war. We didn’t start the war.”
Last month, Mr. Ovchinnikov was pelted with snowballs when he was updating some antiwar graffiti by the main road.
“First I wrote ‘Z: madness,’” he said, referring to the letter that has become a symbol of support for the invasion. “They painted over it. Then I wrote ‘Z: Shame.’ They painted over it. Then I wrote ‘Z: Fiasco.’”
That was in November. Soon after, a major from the intelligence services came to his home to question him.
“With the inscription, I had the goal of conveying to the population and guests of the city of Borovsk that the special military operation is a failure and that it must be stopped,” he wrote in his official statement, using the Kremlin’s euphemism for the war.
“I do not repent for what I have done. I do not feel my guilt. I had to do what I did.”